Czech Republic inches towards resolution of post-election stalemate

Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic inched its way closer to a way out of the political stalemate on Wednesday, a stalemate which has gripped the country since inconclusive parliamentary elections seven weeks ago. There are now increasing signs the two main parties are reconciled to reaching some sort of deal on sharing power.

Lubomir Zaoralek,  photo: CTK
Elections in June produced a hung parliament, with the lower house split down the middle between left and right. Each bloc has 100 seats, and so neither the Civic Democrats, the right-of-centre party which won the elections, nor the Social Democrats, the main governing party, can form a coalition government with a majority. Under the constitution, the present Social Democrat-led government cannot resign until the lower house elects a new speaker. The lower house cannot elect a new speaker because it's split down middle.

On Wednesday, however, there was a minor breakthrough. The Civic Democrats and their two coalition allies - the Christian Democrats and Greens - announced they would no longer field a candidate for lower house speaker. They had made two bids for the post, and both failed. Now they seem to be ready to allow the Social Democrats to occupy the position once again. Indeed, it seems likely the current speaker, Lubomir Zaoralek, will be re-elected.

Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
Of course they didn't make this concession without receiving something in return. According to the Czech constitution, the first two attempts at forming a government are made by a candidate nominated by the president - in this case the candidate is Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolanek. If both those attempts fail, it's the turn of the lower house speaker to nominate someone. The Social Democrats' concession was that they will no longer insist that this third chance automatically goes to them. Instead, the two parties agreed that it will be up to anyone who can muster at least 101 seats in the lower house.

Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
As soon as the new speaker is elected on Friday, Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and his centre-left government can resign, probably in a special session of parliament on Monday. This allows Mirek Topolanek to become prime minister, albeit of a government with no majority. Mr Topolanek has 30 days to win a vote of confidence in parliament, which seems unlikely. But at least if Mr Topolanek tries and fails, the process moves from stage one to stage two, which in Czech terms can be described as progress.

Most Czechs are thoroughly fed up with the post-election stalemate, and want some sort of solution. The problem is the two main parties have only three viable options: (a) a grand coalition of the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats, (b) a minority Civic Democrat government tolerated by the Social Democrats, or (c) a caretaker government taking the country to early elections.

But neither party wants to be seen as giving too much away, nor do they want to be seen as betraying their voters. The unwieldy Czech constitution also doesn't give them much room for manoeuvre. This is why it's all taking so long, and also why a viable government is unlikely before autumn.